Below is a guest post from my colleague Dr. Michael S. Rosenberg (msr at asu dot edu) who is an associate professor at Arizona State University. I think he has an interesting perspective in this discussion that can contribute to broader questions of redefining academia. The opinions expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily represent those of the university.


Like many scientists, I’ve been thinking about the proposed “Research Works Act” (RWA) and its threat to public access of publicly paid for research. Many others have already written about this much more eloquently than I am likely to, but I want to share some thoughts on some of the proposed solutions/fallout that may occur because of this act (regardless of whether it passes or not).1

For a number of years, a number of open access advocates have been calling for a boycott of pay-to-read (closed-access) journals, and such calls have (rightfully) increased since the RWA was proposed (e.g., Michael Eisen in a recent NY Times opinion piece). This mimics a similar, but less vocal, call for boycotting reviewing for-profit journals in favor of non-profit journals. There are numerous arguments made for this second boycott, but one of the most common boils down to the question of why should you donate your time as a reviewer to help a business earn a profit, when they are not paying or rewarding you in any way for your time. The for-profit/non-profit distinction is somewhat independent from the open-access/closed-access models. If one considers these, we essentially have a 2x2 grid of possibilities (the journals listed are simply examples):

Open-Access Closed-Access
For-Profit Bentham Open Science & Nature
Non-Profit PLoS Ecology


(Note: there is a third option in the open/closed access axis, which is journals which have an option for open-access, meaning some articles are open and some are closed, depending on whether the researcher had the money/willingness to pay for open-access. Since most articles published in these journals end up as closed-access (a completely off-the-cuff and data-free assessment by myself), it’s unclear to me if having the option for open-access relieves them of the guilt-by-association with fully closed-access journals).

It is very clear that all of us socialist, anti-capitalist, liberal, East coast, elite, ivory tower scientists would prefer the open-access/non-profit journals (such as PLoS) and would reject the for-profit/closed-access journals, if given a choice (although to be realistic, how many would reject Science and Nature if given an opportunity?). Whether most people would generally prefer open-access/for-profit over closed-access/non-profit is an interesting question, but not the point of where I’m heading.

When one thinks about boycotting a journal, as far as I can tell, there are three primary ways one can do so: (1) refuse to review for the journal; (2) refuse to publish in the journal; (3) refuse to subscribe to the journal. I’m going to ignore the third, because most journals that we, as scientists, access are subscribed to by our university library, making a boycott less of an individualized decision.2 The first two have more interesting issues.

Let’s start with reviewing. As has been pointed out by many, reviewing is a process that is generally uncompensated, but is absolutely essential for all journals to function. Reviewers are donating their time for no benefit other than service to the scientific community, and reviewing is an expectation of the job, thus someone who never did reviews would be looked on unfavorably when administrative decisions such as hiring, promotion, tenure, or raises are made. While it may be relatively easy to refuse to review for all for-profit journals, cutting off non-profit journals which are closed-access becomes somewhat more difficult because many of these are part of the centerpiece of societies which you may heavily support.

I have recently become an associate editor for a society-based journal which I believe is quite important, but the journal is not full open-access (it has the additional-pay option) and is currently published through a contract with a for-profit publisher (the specific publisher potentially changes every few years when contracts are renewed). Is this open or closed access? Do I view this as a for-profit company or a non-profit society? Is the semi-closed access nature enough to override support for an extremely important society? I’ve heard nothing from the society about the RWA (unlike the pro-RWA stand taken by the ESA group and the anti-RWA stand taken by the International Society for Computational Biology) (I’m rather certain the publisher supports it). Where should one draw the line? At this point I see no good reason to boycott the society journal, although I’d prefer to see them contract with a different publisher when the next contract comes due.

The most difficult issue is the second one listed, refusing to publish in a journal. There simply aren’t that many quality open access journals (I do not count the Bentham Open spam/scam journals, and you shouldn’t either), and they do not necessarily cover a wide enough range of topics. But “what about PLoS ONE?” you ask, which will publish almost anything on any field if it is judged sound science. Well, that sounds great in theory. Except that PLoS ONE does not publish reviews. Or commentary. Or opinions. In fact, I am not aware of any open-access outlet for these sorts of works, and one cannot simply claim that reviews are not important, while commentary and opinions can simply be posted on blogs. Reviews can be critically important works, and the vast majority of blogs are completely ignored; even the popular ones are (usually) not viewed as scholarly output when it comes to administrative overview. Maybe the solution is for PLoS ONE to open its door a bit, or maybe there needs to be a new journal called something like PLoS Reviews. Sometimes where you chose to publish is not about prestige, but about reaching the right target audience. In many cases open-access journals for that audience simply do not exist. At this time, I simply cannot limit all of my submissions to PLoS or BMC journals (the two primary open-access publishers that I am aware of) and expect my career to continue to move forward.

In the end, this is one of the biggest problems with the call for boycott (the biggest one is simply getting enough people to sign on and stick to it). No matter how well intentioned we are, currently there simply are not enough valid options to cover all of our publishing needs if the closed-access (and to a lesser extent, for-profit) journals are ignored. In some sense it is a shame; if anything was ever going to get enough scientists riled up to truly make a formidable boycott of closed-access journals, the RWA is that event. But it is not clear to me that there are enough valid open-access alternatives to support the very scientists who would be on the front-line of the boycott. It’s sort of like calling for a boycott of the local cable company when you live an area with poor satellite and antenna reception. It sounds great in principle, and who doesn’t hate their cable company, but for some people, the only alternative is no television at all (many may view this as a good thing, but that’s an entirely separate issue).

Personally, I’d love to support only open-access non-profit journals. But are they ready to support me in return?3

1As an aside, even though I agree with them, I’m vaguely amused at the arguments that the act double-charges the American public for access to research they’ve paid for…how is this any different than the fact the government gives money to both businesses and universities to conduct research that they can patent and charge the public to use. Is access to an article describing publicly-funded research more valuable than access to a drug developed through publicly-funded research? If the government invested in the research, shouldn’t they get a cut of the profit (and thereby reducing the tax-burden/deficit) the way any private investor would?

2The primary reason non-profit, closed-access journals are worried about open-access is that they are generally society journals and their operational funding comes almost entirely from societal membership fees, which often include a subscription to the society journal. There are any number of reasons a young scientist may join a society, but in the pre-PDF-on-the-internet days, one of the big motivations was access to the journal (having to share an important paper journal at the library was not always convenient). The journal subscription could be viewed as the gateway drug to get graduate students hooked onto the society proper. With most journals now available on the internet, young scientists (in the United States, at least) often have access to closed-access journals through their university library, allowing them to download PDF’s they are interested in for no cost to themselves. The main motivation that many had for joining a society has been removed. A number of the societies which I’m familiar with (although not all) have seen a regular decrease in new memberships from young scientists over the last 5-10 years, and the societies blame (whether rightly or wrongly) internet dissemination of the journals as a major factor (even closed-access dissemination). The societies which are not seeing this decline presumably provide a perceived benefit beyond the journal which is still attractive to young scientists; perhaps access to research awards or honors, important scientific advocacy, etc. Rather than clamoring against open-access, the societies which are suffering should focus on providing better services and opportunities to their members in order to keep the society membership high and entice young scientists to join.

3For the record, I believe about 12-15% of my peer-reviewed journal publications have been published in an open-access journal or were published as open-access for an extra fee. If one looks at just the last six years, the number goes up to about 33%.